Utah’s Third District Court has ruled that the state constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, one of the most sweeping of those passed by voters across the nation in 2004, does not bar Salt Lake City from offering health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of city employees.
The case that gave rise to this ruling developed after Salt Lake City’s mayor, Rocky Anderson, signed an executive order in September of last year extending the partnership benefits for gay and straight couples. The Utah State Retirement Board, responsible for administering the benefit programs of all state and local government entities, sought a judgment as to whether the 2004 amendment precluded the program Anderson implemented.
The court ruling turned on the conclusion that health benefits are not “a perquisite of marriage,” which would be denied to same-sex couples under the 2004 amendment.
“Health insurance programs, however common, are not required by law of either public or private employers, but are established voluntarily (or as the result of bargaining) to meet market-driven or other perceived needs,” Judge Stephen L. Roth wrote in his ruling. “In their essence, employee health benefits are first and foremost simply a perquisite of employment.”
Subsequent to Anderson’s executive order, the Salt Lake City Council extended partner benefits to any adult who has lived with a city employee for more than a year and is financially “interdependent” with that employee. That broadening of the partnership program was not a factor in the ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a lesbian employee of the Salt Lake City Police Department, Dianna Goodliffe, and the local branch of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, hailed the decision as an important victory for lesbian and gay couples in other states that have passed far-reaching constitutional amendments that go beyond simply barring same-sex marriage.
“The court understood correctly that laws banning gay people from marriage do not in any way bar employers from choosing to provide domestic partner benefits,” said Margaret Plane of the ACLU of Utah. “The court recognized that employers have important reasons for wanting to provide health insurance for the families of all their employees, and it’s within their rights to do so.”
Goodliffe, with her partner Lisa, has a four-year-old daughter. Last year, their daughter was diagnosed with diabetes, making health insurance critical for their family. The decision will mean that Lisa will now have the option of working part-time and staying home to care for their daughter.